How to take great family portraits (a few easy tips)

Thanksgiving is over, but Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s Eve, and more are right around the corner—plenty more chances to get the whole clan in one location. With that in mind, raise your hand if you’ve ever thought, ‘Dang it! We should have taken a picture while everyone was together!’

Sadly, we’ve all done it. Don’t miss your chance this year! Family portraits are fun to take, powerful tools for preserving personal history, and make spectacular gifts. Even if you don’t bring grandma to tears with a stunning wood print or stretched canvas—although you absolutely should!—it sure is nice to have a current photo to fill out a custom greeting card or nestle in a wallet.

You’re not too late—if you want to send out a heartwarming, personal card, you still can! We’ll turn your order around in as little as 48 hours, and cards and calendars are still 25% off. And even if you don’t get your order in until next week, your friends and family will love keeping the holiday cheer going a little longer. I’m a “New Year’s card” person, myself. 😉

Get the right gear

Technique is almost always the most important factor in the success of any photo, but certain equipment is integral to making this kind of portrait possible… or, at least, will make it a lot easier to get good results. Before you get everyone into position, make sure you have the following:

A sturdy tripod: I’d recommend the ProMaster XC522 to anyone in need. It’s a solid, full-size option at a very reasonable price. If you don’t have room to set up a standard tripod, a GorillaPod is a great alternative which can be adapted to almost any situation. I can’t say I’ve never helped construct an improvised platform—a board game on top of a board balanced between two chairs, say—but life is so much easier with the proper equipment!

A remote trigger, app control, or self-timer: Wireless triggers changed the game for family photographers, who no longer need to be excluded from the final results. Even better, you can trigger many modern cameras using the manufacturer’s Android or iOS app, no extra purchase necessary! If your setup doesn’t allow for either one, well… set that self-timer to ten seconds and make sure you leave a spot in front or on the edge of the photo so you can run in! (NB: even if you’re using a remote trigger or app, set the self-timer to at least the minimum setting, usually two seconds, to give you time to hide your device-laden hand.)

A NON-wide-angle lens: I won’t risk upsetting any of my loved ones by including an example, but be sure you’re not using a wide-angle lens for the photo. The temptation is understandable, but the slight ballooning of anyone in the middle and the weird stretching of anyone at the fringes make the results “non-optimal” in 99% of portraiture situations. If you can get away with it, something around 85mm (full-frame equivalent) will be your most flattering option, but if you’re shooting in close quarters, a 35mm or even 28mm should be fine.

…and, of course, plenty of memory! You wouldn’t want to miss the defining moment because you ran out of room.

One for the ages!

Prepare for the session

Once you’re geared up, you need to make at least a basic effort to prep your scene. Don’t be lazy—make the scene work for you instead of the other way around. If you have to move furniture, move a little furniture. Remember, this is your family’s legacy we’re talking about! If there’s anything visible around or behind where you’ll have people standing, make sure it adds value rather than simply being a distraction.

While you’re clearing distractions and sneaking subtle references to inside jokes into the scene, ponder some poses before you’re trying to wrangle a whole family. For large groups, a great strategy is to arrange everyone around a revered member of the family (the patriarch, the puppy, etc.) rather than a line, which can look a little repetitive.

For smaller groups or individual shots, consider non-standing poses as a way to prevent monotony—have everyone lay down on their stomachs and face the camera, put the kids back to back, stand younger siblings around an older one on a throne, etc.

No matter how you pose your group(s), be sure that your lighting is even across the whole scene. A speedlight bounced to provide soft light is probably the easiest way to bring your portraiture to a whole new level, but it only works if you don’t have any extreme lighting differences within your scene. If there’s sunlight or some other bright light in your scene, make sure that your group is either entirely in the light or entirely outside of it. Split sunlight and shadow in one image is one thing that Photoshop can’t fix, so you’ll need to head that issue off at the pass.

Finally, be sure you’re stocked up on jokes. Not everyone makes it equally easy to capture their natural smile.

Maximize your shoot

When the big day arrives, be sure to take full advantage of it. Include everyone you can, including kids and pets*. The “complete” photos are some of those most cherished later in life, so don’t take no for an answer from a needlessly self-critical member of the group. You are all beautiful!

*A note on the less-disciplined: one extremely common pitfall when kids/pets are involved is finally catching the child/animal looking at the camera only to find the parents/owners are busy checking whether their charge is focusing on the task at hand. At the start of your shoot, take explicit responsibility for making sure everyone’s looking at the lens and make everyone else agree to leave it to you, so that they can focus on making sure that they are looking where they need to be themselves.

Don’t be shy about making it happen. If you wait too long, outfits and hair may start to fall apart or people may begin to leave before you can grab the aforementioned complete photo.

Once you’ve gotten the ball rolling, make some time to get a little artistic. Posed “candids,” matching outfits, or images meant to communicate something about the people contained within can be great, and are absolutely allowed.

You don’t have to go full wedding-style, but a list of groups through which you’d like to run can go a long way too. Once you’ve nailed the moment of completeness, see what other points of commonality can be represented. All the cousins, all the grandkids, all the girls… all of these are fit to cherish in their own special ways later in life. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could even get quality individual shots while you’re at it.

Important or exciting events since the last time you posed for portraits? Try to tell those stories, too!

Once you’ve got a layout planned out for babies, weddings, or just the progression of the years, you can keep using it and build up a visually resonant series over the many years to come. This sort of photo is probably the best option—aside from the simplest, most-traditional portrait styles—to beautify your custom-printed greeting cards. There’s no harm in sending cards for New Year’s instead of Christmas if it means a much better photo, after all.

Just have fun!

At the end of the day, family portraits matter the most to the people within them. If you’re taking them at all, you’re better-prepared for future nostalgia than most people out there. So, by all means, use a great tripod, set yourself up with the best speedlight you can afford, and give the big portrait guys a run for their money. But when you’re done, don’t forget to take a silly one, too.

The next step

Don’t forget to use your photos once you have them. My two personal favorites for this kind of thing, as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, are canvas gallery wraps and wood block prints. Puzzles and ornaments of metal or wood are other great ways to make a permanent record of the whole gang, and if you save those portrait-emblazoned greeting cards over the years you’ll end up with a thorough record of the ways you’ve changed and grown. If you don’t want to scrapbook the cards themselves, a freshly-printed photo book is an alternative way to save those memories, and next time you have a family reunion, what better way to show your team colors than with a “____ family” t-shirt?

The point is that there are a million ways to enjoy the results of your family photo shoot, but “languishing on a hard drive” is not one of them. Lost for ideas? Our imaging experts are always willing to lend a hand and/or brain to help you maximize your photographic enjoyment! Give us a call or stop on in, any time.

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